Fulcrum Red Metal Zero Wheels
Fulcrum wheels first hit the market in 2004. Since then, they've been ridden to success on the world stage, both in road and mountain bike disciplines. We've had the opportunity to thrash a set of Fulcrum Red Metal Zero off-road wheels for most of our spring season. They arrived alongside a set of their Road Tubeless road wheels, so that seemed to be the theme we started with -- tubeless. As such, we approached our test period with this in mind. Sure, they're light and uber good-looking, but we wanted to know how they stacked up in the tubeless realm as well as how they performed out on the trail.
Now, tubeless on the road does not yet seem to be grabbing the industry by the throat, but mountain tubeless… now that's something we get passionate about. If you don't already know, tubeless is the absolute way to go on mountain bikes. The advantages are clear cut, even if the weight savings is minimal in some cases. We appreciate the ability to ride with lower overall air pressures in our tires, and we enjoy the benefits this provides -- greater comfort, more tire durability, and waaay better traction. And the best part is… no more pinch flats. In fact, we can't even remember the last time we suffered this indignity.
When we pulled these wheels from the box, the Red Metal Zeros made a good first impression. The finish was excellent all 'round and the red anodized rims and hubs looked like they'd be a nice match for the red dw-links and headset on our Mojo SL test mule. Of course, they got passed around a bit, as new products do, and everybody got to oooh and aaah and swipe their paws all over them. But the testing business is all about getting down to business, so we snatched 'em up and headed for the shop to get some tires wrapped around the rims.
We were familiar with the specs for these wheels from the Fulcrum literature and website, and in fact, we'd questioned the kind folks at QBP, the North American Fulcrum distributor, about their use of UST in the product description. At the time, the Fulcrum site and dealer information listed the Red Metal wheels as utilizing their Ultra-Fit Tubeless rim design, yet QBP spec'ed them as UST. As it turns out, the wheels we received were labeled with the coveted UST logo, and therefore have been tested to meet the stringent design protocol for true UST designation. So Ultra-Fit Tubeless = UST. Awesome! With UST, you're guaranteed a proper tubeless seal as well as easy, tool-free tire installation and no fiddling with rims strips or tape of any kind. And as a bonus, they're supposed to be inflatable with a hand pump.
As expected, we had no troubles installing our Continental 2.4 UST Mountain Kings by hand, and without levers. The secret is in the deep UST central channel on the inside wall of the tire bed. It allows room to accommodate the bead of the tire as you gently roll the opposite side up and over the sidewall. We used a super diluted soap and water solution to lubricate the beads/seats and a standard floor pump to seat and inflate the tires. There was no mess and certainly no fuss. The whole process took less than ten minutes. Admittedly, we used a bit of Stan's No Tubes Latex Tire Sealant in each tire, one red cup apiece, to add some extra puncture protection for the trail.
The Red Metal Zeros that Fulcrum sent us were the HH version. HH stand for hollow hub, and it pertains to the front wheel only. The front hub uses a 20mm o.d. axle that accepts a 15mm thru-axle for your fork attachment. Since our fork selection for our test mule currently consists of either quick release or 20mm thru-axle, we had to opt for the former to fit the Fulcrum wheels on our rig. Luckily, the Red Metal Zeros can be easily converted from 15mm thru-axle to QR with a simple axle swap. And when we disassembled the front hub, we found loose ball bearings! Ok, they were in a retainer, so we weren't too scared, but we'd almost forgotten that Fulcrum is a Campagnolo company. And what's Campy famous for? If nothing else, everyone thinks of the uber-smooth and perfect ball bearings in their hubs and bottom brackets. After our discovery, we fully expected these hubs to roll as smooth as silk, and nothing shy of perfection would make the grade. The axle retrofit was easy and took less than ten minutes. In keeping with precision bearing theme, both hubs have easily adjustable collars to set the preload to perfection. And forget fumbling with two cone wrenches to lock the preload like the bad old days, the Fulcrum arrangement was easy with one hex wrench for the set screw to secure the adjustment collar.
And off to the trails we went! We couldn't help but compare the Red Metal Zeros to Mavic's Crossmax series of wheels. They fall into place somewhere between the ST and SLR in weight for the pair, though their 1600 grams place them a bit closer in weight to the Crossmax ST wheelset. Similarities between the Fulcrums and the Mavics include -- true UST rims, 24 aluminum bladed spokes, and a 19mm nominal rim width.
It was easy to see that the Fulcrums were going to ride great, as soon as we took off. They felt responsive under acceleration, and as soon as we stomped on the pedals we blasted off down the path. We're sure that a big part of the snappy feel has to do with Fulcrum's use of forged aluminum spokes. They're stiff and super strong, yet light -- a great combination, and we're sure of that. The other factor may be their spoking pattern, though we have no way to absolutely quantify its relevance. They use an asymmetrical pattern, called Two-to-One, whereby they use 16 spokes on the side of the wheel that needs to handle the torque load -- left on the front and right on the rear, and the remaining 8 spokes go to the opposite sides, respectively. The goal of the system is to reduce torsional loading/unloading of the wheels and to increase the number of spokes bearing the main stresses of power application to the rear wheel and braking on the front wheel. The physics of all this sure makes sense to us, but we're not scientists. What we do know is that we rode these wheels like we stole 'em, and in four months, we never had any negative issues. They ran as straight in the truing stand on the day they left as they did when they arrived.
The Red Metal Zeros are oriented as raceworthy XC wheelset. And while they were tough enough (and take heed, some of us are a bit beyond proper race weight so we put them through the wringer), they have a bit of a weight penalty in comparison to Crossmax SLRs. The difference is about 100 grams or so. While a pocket full of energy gels can easily exceed that figure, rotating weight is exactly where you want to reduce, if you can, for maximum performance. In light of that weight difference, we'd be hard pressed to recognize the Fulcrums from a set of SLRs in a blind trail test. One aspect that we really like though is the red finish. Call us sissies if you like, but these wheels look hot! Let's put it this way… if you take some wheels home and your wife notices them you may be in good shape, maybe bad. But when she comments on how awesome they look on your bike… well, consider yourself a smart shopper.
As fine as they looked on our Mojo, they rode just as well. There was never any discernable flex in either wheel. It didn't matter if we were standing and mashing on the pedals, sitting and spinning through cobble-laden creekbeds, or railing a tight berm at speed. Lateral stiffness was at a premium. And since you know we tested them on a 140mm Mojo, you'd know that our dw-link bike soaked up most of the bumps and offenses from the trail. So we're not even going to lie about recognizing any vertical compliance in the wheels. It would be our best guess to say that they are as stiff vertically as they are laterally. Our assumptions are based on the relatively large cross section of the forged aluminum spokes. They just don't stretch like a comparably light stainless steel spoke. But this is a good thing and helps give wheels like the Red Metal Zeros such confidence inspiring stability.
We expected the rims to work perfectly with our 2.4 Conti tires, and they did. We rode them at our normal air pressures for tires of this size and they never burped air or lost pressure in any way during our four month test period. We did, however, push the system past the limit one time. There's an abandoned quarry close by and we were riding there one day when the inspiration struck to bomb down the face of exposed shale. Mathematicians have a formula for what happened: 200lb rider + serious gravity = serious speed x unseen lump = off balance airtime + off camber shale covered flat landing = killer wipeout. Upon refilling a couple of deflated lungs, it was evident that our XC air pressures were a bit low for aggressive riding in technical, steep terrain. Not to mention the intended purpose for the wheels and their accordant XC rim width.
Either way, the off camber landing rolled the tire, burping a majority of the air from within. But in the end, the tire stayed on and was in place against the bead hook, albeit along with some shale chunks. If we were a ways from the car, we might've been able to charge it up with a CO₂ and keep on riding. As it was, we were a few steps away from a pump and a rag to wipe down the rim/tire interface and get it back to pressure so we could go ride some more. There's nothing like a little awkward hang time to contemplate why you should always ride gear that suits the riding. For hardcore terrain, we'd be better off on Fulcrum's Red Zone or Red Fire wheelsets -- something built for burly riding with wider rims for better sidewall support.
A few years back we had a bunch of Fulcrum skewers that, to be honest, had minimal clamping power, as if the eccentric was misshaped. But that's all water under the bridge now. The skewers that came with our Red Metal test wheels were very good. One of the things we liked best about them was the way that they laid nicely below the bottom of the fork leg, their shape closely following, but not interfering with, the nut on the left fork lower. Just to satisfy curiosity, we swapped the skewer in the front wheel so that the lever was on the right side of the wheel. The lever arm fit just as nicely over the threshold adjustment knob on the bottom of the right fork leg of our Fox Fork.
One arena where we thought that the Fulcrums definitely outshined comparable Mavic wheels was in the freehub performance. The reason is the quicker engagement of the Fulcrum freehub. While it didn't provide telepathically instantaneous engagement, like an Industry Nine freehub, it was far better than the standard Mavic FTS unit that is regarded as well… having some noticeable lag. We didn't disassemble the Fulcrum unit to see what was inside, but on the trail it worked very well and we never had a problem. Another thing we saw as positive was the stainless steel nipples. While they're almost a necessity for Fulcrum's MoMag system (they use a magnet to "pull" them from the valve stem hole around the rim towards each spoke hole), we're assuming that they'll provide a good service life in comparison to aluminum nipples. Even though we never touched them with a spoke wrench, they'll be more durable when the time comes for some truing. And if you've ever twisted the flats off of an alloy nipple, you'll understand our misgivings about ultra-lightweight, soft materials used for this crucial structural component.
All good things must come to an end, and we were sad to let them go back to the vendor. The Red Metal Zeros were some great wheels. We started the test expecting to put them on our race bike, but somehow they got derailed to the Mojo. And, to be honest, it gets pushed a little harder on the downhills and through the rough stuff than the race bike. So throughout all the punishment we could dish out, the Fulcrums held up admirably. They're light on the scale without sacrificing durability and strength, and the front hub can be converted from quick release to 15mm thru-axle. Now for the heartbreak… these babies are a bit spendy in comparison to the Crossmax ST wheelset. Forgive us for continually going back to the Mavics, but they are some fine wheels and offer a lot of bang for your buck. Another thing worth considering -- the bearings. The Fulcrum's loose bearing were quite smooth. They spun great in the hand, and out on the trail they rocked. But some of us prefer the ride-and-forget nature of sealed cartridge bearings. That said, we never had any issues during our test period, and we suspect that the double seals did their job adequately to keep the grease fresh through our spring season. But if the difference is aesthetics, the Fulcrums take the cake. And if it means that you have to do a little color matching to make your bike look good, well you've gotta do what you've gotta do. And in the end if your "pretty" bike is favored by anyone else important in your life, then the extra bucks were easy to part with.